Musical chairs, anyone?
Multiple reports emerged Wednesday claiming that the Mets and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes had discussed the possibility of Cespedes playing a new position – first base. As a part of his rehab from a flexor strain, Cespedes has reportedly begun taking grounders at first base, and as far as the outfield goes, once he and Jay Bruce are active, he might see game time there. It’s a curious attempt at a solution to the Mets’ current outfield log-jam – the Mets’ two best hitters this season have been Brandon Nimmo and Jose Bautista, and with Michael Conforto, Bruce, and Cespedes active, the Mets have effectively five starting outfielders and not enough spots for them.
Even if Bautista is moved at the deadline (as the Mets have received considerable interest in the veteran outfielder), that still leaves one of Conforto, Nimmo, Bruce, and Cespedes as the odd man out. But would such a move ultimately benefit the Mets?
Let’s talk first about what “Cespedes the 1B” would look like. Jay Bruce has long been considered as an all-around defensive liability in the outfield, and his move to first accomplished the task of hiding his defensive shortcomings to a greater extent than was possible in a corner outfield position. But Cespedes offers a bit more defensive variety than Bruce’s general mediocrity, so moving him to first isn’t so simple. FanGraphs breaks down defensive value (UZR) for outfielders into three components: ARM Runs (defensive value by getting the ball in from the outfield), Range Run (by having good range and getting to balls quickly), and Error runs (by handling the ball well).
|Year||Arm Runs||Range Runs||Error Runs||UZR|
Defensive values can fluctuate quite a bit from year to year, but the main takeaway is that Cespedes has mediocre range. Moving him to first, where range matters less, can help limit any negative defensive value Cespedes might provide as a result of being in the outfield. But at the same time, Cespedes has an incredible arm – his ARM Runs since 2012 are second only to Alex Gordon, despite Cespedes having played ~1800 fewer innings than Gordon. For most of his career, Cespedes’ arm has more than made up for his range, but in 2017 and 2018 his balky quad has made him a below-replacement outfielder defensively by neutering his range.
Cespedes certainly hits well enough to compensate for his poor defense in the outfield. And unless Cespedes turns out to be the equivalent of Eric Hosmer in a wheelchair at first, he’ll easily hit well enough to account for any possible shortcomings at first. But moving Cespedes to first wouldn’t be a boon to his defensive value in terms of minimizing the harm his defense, as was the case with Bruce – while moving Cespedes to first limits the negative impact of his range, it also completely removes any value that his arm, his most valuable tool, provides. It might be a necessity to help keep Cespedes healthier and on the field longer, but ultimately, Cespedes is at his most valuable when he’s playing the outfield.
No, Cespedes’ move is not out of a desire to limit his defensive shortcomings. Maybe you can argue that it’s driven out of a desire to protect Cespedes’ health. But the primary reason for Cespedes’ planned move is that the Mets have created a positional log-jam for themselves – a completely self-inflicted malady, and one that might force them into limiting the value of one of their star players.
Sandy Alderson said, half-jokingly, said that they didn’t feel the need to pursue Giancarlo Stanton in the offseason because “with Brandon Nimmo in right field, we just didn’t feel we had a need there.” As joking as he may have been, the Mets did protect and value Nimmo in trade discussions this offseason, even refusing to move the outfielder in a deal for Andrew McCutchen. The exact same offseason, the Mets signed Bruce, who at the time only played right field. With Conforto and Cespedes already on the roster, there was no room for both, and Nimmo ignominiously began the season on the bench, and later in the minors. Even if Jose Bautista is gone before the deadline, the Mets have too many outfielders.
Clearly, the flaw was not in the Mets valuing Nimmo so much, as the young outfielder has broken out in a big way – it was in the Mets giving Jay Bruce $39 million dollars. David Roth noted the Mets ownerships’ obsession with acquiring milquetoast veterans in free agency (usually to their own detriment) – if the Mets throwing an aging outfield slugger a well-above-market contract sounds all too familiar, it’s because the Mets have lived through this horror story multiple times before (a nightmare that, I will remind you, has occurred multiple times with different general managers, but the same ownership group).
The Mets’ free agent acquisitions are now getting in the way of the same young core that carried the Mets to back-to-back postseasons. The Mets are not going to get substantially more value from Cespedes by moving him to first. When they eventually brute force Bruce into their lineup, by moving Cespedes to first and returning Bruce to the outfield, the Mets will cheat Flores out of playing time as well, who stands to be a better bat than Bruce (FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projections expect Flores to hit .269/.315/.463 for the rest of the season, but Bruce just .239/.309/.439).
It also removes any opportunity for Dominic Smith to find play time at the major league level, likely dooming him to the minor leagues for at least the next season. Even ignoring the impact on Smith’s development that Cespedes taking over at first could have, both Cespedes and Flores are better hitters and defenders at their respective positions, so asking them to accept different roles (Cespedes to first, Flores to the bench) so that Bruce can play will not make the team appreciably better – just the opposite.
The Mets asking Cespedes to learn first is hardly a positive move – it indicates that, once Bruce and Cespedes are both healthy, Bruce will be shoehorned into the lineup again at the expense of young players’ playing time. The Mets cannot keep letting mediocre veterans impede on the team’s ability to be competitive (as they have already done with Jose Reyes cheating Amed Rosario out of playing time). It’s amazing how the Mets, time and time again, fail to recognize their sunk costs – but simultaneously, it’s infuriating to watch deserving young players lose playing time to these senseless notions. The Mets have their young core – they should be working to compliment it, not impede it.